Singer-songwriter Anna Wilson, ’93, makes a name for herself in Music City
Let’s say you’re a singer-songwriter living in Nashville.
You’re making a record, and you want to perform a duet with Kenny Rogers.
How can you make that happen?
Well, if you’re Anna Wilson, ’93, it helps that you already have his email address. After all, he had contacted her when he wanted to record a song with Leann Rimes—and he had heard Wilson knew Rimes.
“I had met her at a party Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman were throwing, but I didn’t know her well,” said Wilson. When Wilson got an email from Kenny Rogers asking her to connect him with Rimes, Wilson was more than happy to oblige. “If Kenny Rogers asked me to do anything, I’d say, ‘Yes, what time, and I’ll be there.’”
So, when Wilson emailed the legendary Rogers a year later and asked him to record a duet with her for her CD Countrypolitan Duets, he agreed. When Rogers came to her studio to make the recording, Wilson, who remembers listening to Rogers’ music while she was a Loyola student, was in awe. “He is the king of duets,” she said.
Wilson has established her own career in Nashville, first as a songwriter for country artists including Lady Antebellum, Chuck Wicks, Reba McIntire, Billy Ray Cyrus, Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack, and Chris Cagle. More recently she has established herself as a jazz artist, writing and recording her own music—and the songs of country artists who performed in the 1950s and ’60s.
How does a girl from Chester Springs, Pa., make her way to Music City?
As a child, Wilson loved music, took piano lessons, and sang into her hairbrush. Music was always in the house, but during her school years she was more of an athlete. As a high school senior, she started thinking about a career in Nashville, but her father insisted she go to college.
That made sense. And she was being recruited to play Division I field hockey, so she focused on her sport.
“Literally three weeks before the season started, I was down at the Olympic trials—we were getting ready to try out for the team for Barcelona—and I blew my knee away,” said Wilson, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament. “It was a real crossroads for me. I was going to have to get a big surgery. I would have to get red-shirted and go to college for five years. When it became less about hockey and more about focusing on the future, I chose Loyola.”
Wilson decided to major in communication, with a concentration in public relations, and minor in music. When her athletic dream came crashing down, she picked up the guitar and started pouring all her emotions into her music.
Always on her mind
Wilson, who had taken piano lessons as a child and started playing the guitar as a high school senior, immersed herself in music at Loyola. She earned the nickname around campus of
“Dixie” and joined “little college garage bands.” One she remembers was named Picadilly 3rd.
“I kind of just worked out all my stuff through college, in terms of music. I worked out where I really wanted to take this,” she said. And she took summer courses and studied so she could graduate in three years—and get to Nashville. “Even though I was having a great and wonderful experience at Loyola, I was just ready to start my life and my career.”
During spring break her last year at Loyola, she went to Nashville to circulate her résumé. The night before Commencement—and her 21st birthday—she received a job offer from the public relations firm representing Garth Brooks.
Fifteen days later, she packed her car and moved to Nashville. She soon moved to another public relations firm, and then decided to pursue her songwriting career.
“I had started to meet songwriters and realized that you could get paid to write songs, that it was a job,” she said. “There are places that basically pay you to go in from 9 to 5 and write songs every day.”
A boy named Keith
Working alongside her at her first songwriting job at a publishing house known as Ten Ten Music was Keith Urban.
“In some ways we were all scratching our heads wondering why this guy isn’t a superstar yet,” Wilson said. “He was playing these dive guitar bars, it was standing room only, and he was spectacular!”
One night, Wilson needed a guitar player for a show in Los Angeles—but she didn’t have the money to pay one. Urban was between contracts and volunteered to play and sing harmony with her.
“That night I got a pop record deal,” Wilson said. “Soon after, I wound up introducing him to his current musical director and drummer. There were a lot of really good seeds planted back in the early years.”
For about 12 years Wilson worked as a songwriter. Along the way she met her husband of 12 years and counting, Monty Powell, who also writes for Urban. She also reconnected with Matt Troja, ’92, and helped him get established as a sound engineer in Nashville.
During the past eight years Wilson has focused more on her own career as an artist, though she continues to write songs for others.
“I joke that I write country songs to pay for my jazz habit, but that’s really not true,” said Wilson. “Because I live in Nashville, I just happen to have a lot of friends who are country artists, and at the end of the day, good music is good music.”
All she ever wanted
Now Wilson has her own record label, publishing company, award-winning recording studio, and a network of artists and people in the music business to help her create records such as her latest album, Countrypolitan Duets. She made her Grand Ole Opry debut in November 2010, wrote the international theme song for Habitat for Humanity, and co-wrote “All I Ever Wanted,” a Top 20 country hit for Chuck Wicks.
On Countrypolitan Duets Wilson demonstrates how closely jazz and the country music of that era are linked, singing with newer stars such as Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, and Lady Antebellum—but then also performing with legends such as Kenny Rogers, Ray Price, and Connie Smith.
“It became this fusion project of jazz and country. The genres aren’t that far apart,” Wilson said. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s, country artists were being played alongside Sinatra, and they were actually trying to compete for radio time. Country music in the ’50s and ’60s was much more ‘country and western’ sounding. When artists like Eddie Arnold and Patsy Cline came along, they incorporated string orchestras behind their music to compete and live alongside the pop music of the day, but they were country songs.”
Fly me to the moon
And now she is a jazz artist in Nashville, the home of country music.
“People think Nashville is just country music, but there’s so many different genres here,” she said.
Although she rode the wave of the Lilith Fair era, when women pop singers were so strong, “you get to a certain age in pop and rock music and if you haven’t made it, you sort of can’t, as a woman,” she said. “You kind of miss your window. I was starting to get in my early 30s.”
At that point she started thinking of the show tunes and great jazz she had listened to as a child, and she began to wonder what would happen if she tried to write a jazz song. Not only did the song work—but she had fun. And she realized she could perform classics such as “Fly Me to the Moon” alongside her original jazz.
“All of the hard lessons, and all of the creative tools that I had picked up in the early years, I channeled and incorporated on the road of trying to make my jazz career a success,” she said. “Jazz is something I can do as an older adult. I want to be 75 years old and still performing one day.”